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Forbidden Love by Gary Nash
Excerpted from Forbidden Love by Gary B. Nash. Copyright, c1999 by Gary B. Nash. Reprinted by permission of Henry Holt and Company, L.L.C. Nash is an authority on Early American History and professor emeritus at U.C.L.A. He is the author of numerous books, including Red, White and Black: The Peoples of Early America, which is now in its third edition.


Mixed-Race Couples in Early America

While most white Americans came to adopt the view that character and culture were literally carried in the genes and that the mixing of races led to polluted blood and impaired intellect, others refused to accept this racial ideology. Largely unnoticed by historians, these people formed families, raised mixed-race children, and strove for a decent place in their communities. For the most part, these Americans issued no tracts, passed no laws, and preached no sermons. Yet they made their ideas, values, and racial openness plain in the way they conducted their lives.

One such couple were William G. Allen and Mary King. Having graduated from Oneida Institute in New York, clerked in a prestigious Boston law firm, and become the first African-American appointed to a professorship at an American college, Allen might have thought he had proven his worth. While teaching at New York Central College in 1851, he became romantically involved with a white minister's daughter, Mary King, who was studying at that interracial school. Allen, the son of a Welsh immigrant father who had married a free mulatto woman, was very light-skinned. Yet to local townspeople, black was black. They threatened to mob Allen and King when it became known that they intended to marry. Driven out of his college position and nearly murdered, Allen arranged to marry his fiancée in New York City. In 1853, they went to England to escape white hostility and to pursue the abolitionist cause.

Even in the Deep South, some men and women challenged the color code. Nathan Sayre, a transplanted New Jerseyan who took up life in Sparta, Georgia, in the early 1830s, was such a person. Establishing himself as a lawyer and a shrewd real estate investor, he became a state's attorney, a member of the Georgia legislature, and a superior court judge. Though never marrying, he sired several children by one of his slave women and later took up life with Susan Hunt, who was herself a mixture of Cherokee, African, and white. For many years they lived together, raising three children in Pomegranate Hall, Sayre's stately mansion in Sparta. Among the volumes Sayre kept in his library was the book by an Englishman, Alexander Walker, titled Intermarriage; or, The Mode in Which and the Causes Why, Beauty, Health, and Intellect, Result from Certain Unions, and Deformity, Disease, and Insanity, from Others. It was a rare book for this era, for it argued against the common belief that racial "amalgamation" would inevitably produce degenerate and physically inferior children.

The children of Nathan Sayre and Susan Hunt--dark-haired, dark-eyed, and light-skinned--soon provided evidence that they were anything but inferior. For example, their middle child, known as Cherokee Mariah Lilly, married a white man in about 1853, and her eight children and many grandchildren figured prominently in southern education and reform movements. Among them were Adella Hunt Logan, a graduate of Atlanta University and a leader of the black women's club movement; Henry A. Hunt, Jr., also trained at Atlanta University and later a member of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's "black cabinet''; and Tom Hunt, a graduate of Tuskegee Institute who moved west and served on the agriculture faculty at the University of California at Berkeley.

Other southern white men, including important political leaders, had few compunctions about establishing lasting relationships with black women. The southern social code required that these interracial liaisons, which amounted to parallel marriages, be conducted discreetly. Martin Van Buren's vice president, Richard Mentor Johnson, was a popular Kentucky politician whose devotion to Mary Chinn, his black mistress, and their two daughters caused him no particular difficulties in politics. Sam Houston's friend John Hemphill, who sat as the chief justice of the Texas Supreme Court from 1841 to 1858, lived with his slave Sabina for more than a decade and sent their two daughters to Wilberforce College, an abolitionist training ground in Ohio, for their education.

Giving comfort to those who resisted the growing doctrine of racial separation was a vision of America as a place where all peoples of whatever race would fuse together. In this minority view, such a fusion would not lead to "mongrelization" and degeneracy but would produce a more vigorous society. To be sure, even most abolitionist reformers were opposed to interracial mixing. Abhorring both slavery and African-Americans, many wanted freed slaves removed to Canada, to a separate territory in the vast West, or, ideally, to Africa. However, others in the antislavery crusade, like T.T., whom we met at the beginning of this chapter, had no qualms about racial mixing and upheld the ideal of a biracial democracy. William Lloyd Garrison, the trumpet of abolitionism and racial equality, predicted in 1831 that "the time is assuredly hastening . . . when distinctions of color will be as little consulted as the height and bulk of the body, when colored men shall be found in our legislative halls and stand on perfect equality with whites." Garrison commented to a friend that soon black skin would "no longer be simply endurable, but popular."

In the early 1830s, "amalgamationists" attacked the law in Massachusetts that prohibited interracial marriage. Garrison argued that the 1786 law banning these mixed marriages was "an invasion of one of the inalienable rights of man, namely, 'the pursuit of happiness.'" To take away people's choice of marriage partner was "utterly absurd and preposterous," in his view. "Does a man derive or lose his right to choose his wife from his color?" he asked. "Why, then, let us have a law prohibiting tall people from marrying short ones.... Shall fat and lean persons be kept apart by penalties? Or shall we graduate love by feet and inches?" When antiamalgamationists charged that if Garrison and his like had their way, the country would be swept with black men seeking white wives, Garrison retorted that "the blacks are not so enamored of white skins, as some of our editors imagine. The courtship, the wooing, the embrace, and intermixture--in nine cases out of ten--will be proposed on the part of the whites, and not of the opposite color." David Ruggles, a fearless New York City black activist, agreed. He pointed out acidly that neither he nor "any colored man or woman of [his] acquaintance" was eagerly pursuing cross-race marriage. Expressing a much more modern notion that "black is beautiful," Ruggles maintained that "nothing is more disgusting than to see my race bleached to a pallid and sickly hue by the lust of those cruel and fastidious white men." He pleaded, "To attempt to obstruct the flow of the affections is ridiculous and cruel." Another reformer argued that "when a man and woman want to be married it is their business, not mine nor anybody else's.... So far from denouncing the marriage of blacks and whites, I would he glad if the banns [announcements] of a hundred thousand such marriages could be published next Sunday."

Massachusetts legislators were unmoved by such published arguments. But by the late 1830s, an avalanche of petitions from whites living in small towns all over the state changed their minds. After viewing ninety-two petitions containing 8,700 signatures in 1843, a large majority of legislators voted to remove the anti-intermarriage law. Although legislators in other northern states would not follow Massachusetts's lead, this was an important blow struck in the name of a person's unqualified right to choose a marriage partner, regardless of popular opinion. . .

For white Protestants, who dominated politics, business, and cultural affairs in the mid-nineteenth century, America was a redeemer nation chosen by God to reform the entire world. This sense of mission was as old as the first Puritan settlers in New England, who saw their outpost of Christianity as a saving remnant of corrupted Protestantism and a beacon in the wilderness. Two centuries later, in the decades before the Civil War, Americans were still trying to perfect their society. This perfectionist thrust, however, took many forms. In an age of reform, some pursued a vision of a purely white America in which Indians would become extinct and from which Africans would be returned to their homelands, while new European immigrants--mostly English, Irish, and German--left behind their old ways and adapted to the white American republic. In this godly mission, there was no room for cultural or racial mixing with lesser stocks. Sanctioned by science and medicine, endorsed by powerful politicians, and fortified by popular culture, the hostility to racial intermingling had eclipsed the ideal of a mestizo America as the United States began to unravel over the issue of slavery.

For those who still clung to the ideal of a new mixed-race America, the message of the white purists was bone-chilling. Out of the spotlight and out of favor with the majority, they did their best to build pockets of mixed-race life and conduct themselves as honorably as their situations permitted. Sometimes this required leaving America altogether. In other cases it meant a lifetime of anguish and an uncertain future for their children....

Mixed-Race Communities

While couples such as Albert and Lucy Parsons, Tye and Charles Schulze, and Frederick and Helen Douglass kept aflame the torch of a mixed-race America, entire groups lived in mixed-race communities. Learning to mingle peacefully began in the late teenage years of a small number of young Americans who attended colleges specifically founded as interracial institutions. The most notable of them were Oberlin College in Ohio and Oneida Institute in New York, both established by radical abolitionists in the 1830s.

Neither school began experiments in interracial living without a fight. In 1835, when he heard that brand-new Oberlin was to be integrated, New England's financial agent warned that "to place black and white together on precisely the same standing will not most certainly be endured," and he predicted that Oberlin "will be blown sky high" if "the darkies begin to come in in any considerable number, unless they are completely separated . . . so as to veto the notion of amalgamation." But generations of Oberlin students, including one of Frederick Douglass's daughters, learned that prejudice dissolved when people studied together, ate together, lived together, and learned together.

At Oneida Institute, the same was true. One white student (for whom Grinnell College was later named) described the student body he found when he entered Oneida: "a motley company of emancipators' boys from Cuba; mulattoes; a Spanish student; an Indian named Kunkapot; black men who had served as sailors, or as city hackmen, also the purest Africans escaped from slavery; sons of American radicals, Bible students scanning Hebrew verse with ease, in the place of Latin odes; enthusiasts, plowboys and printers." Oneida produced many of the African-American leaders of the nineteenth century and fulfilled the dream of its founder, Beriah Green, who wrote that "the red sons of the Western forest, the sable sons of the sunny South have here found a home together, and . . . have lived in peace and love with their pale-faced and blue-eyed brethren."

Farther west, mixed-race communities defied the notion that racial amalgamation would be America's downfall. In the 1880s, when the traveler William Barrows passed through the old beaver-trapping country in Montana and Wyoming, he found towns inhabited almost entirely by people who were thoroughly mixed--French, Indian, English, and Spanish. Impressed by the "color blindness" of these northern Rockies people, Barrows hoped that "we are building a nation, not only in a new world, and under a new system of government, but with a new people.... We are no longer English; that expresses but one of our polygenous ingredients. We are Americans." If Barrows had traveled in the Southwest, especially in New Mexico, he would have found similar communities predominately populated by people of Mexican-lndian descent. To this day, the New Mexico highlands are dotted with towns inhabited mainly by Indian-Mexican families, celebrated in such novels as John Nichols's The Milagro Beanfield War (1974).

The Sikh immigrants to California in the early twentieth century tell a story of a new combination of previously unacquainted people. When new laws in 1882 excluded Chinese immigrants and in 1907 banned Japanese as well, California's cotton, fruit, and vegetable growers turned to Korea, the Philippines, and South Asia for labor. Among these immigrants were nearly 7,000 Sikhs from the Punjab. Arriving as single men, the Punjabis were socially stranded. They could not bring Sikh women with them, and California's 1901 law prohibited marriage between a white person and a"Negro, Mulatto, or Mongolian." But by the end of World War I, the Sikhs were finding that California's county clerks would issue marriage licenses to people of different races as long as their skin color seemed reasonably close. It was this looseness in the application of the law that soon led to marriages between Punjabi men and Mexican women. "Cotton was the crop that brought most [mixed] couples together," says the historian who has studied this type of interraciality. The Mexican Revolution of 1911 propelled Mexicans across the border into U.S. cotton fields from Texas to California, and there the women found Punjabi, Korean, and Filipino partners.

Between 1913 and 1948 (the latter date marks the overturning of California's law prohibiting racial intermarriage), 80 percent of the East Indian men in California married Mexican women. To this day, several thousand of the children and grandchildren of these Punjabi-Hispanic marriages can be found in every Imperial and San Joaquin valley town. Many of the families can still be found under the name of Singh--the most common Sikh surname--but most have Hispanic first names. The Sikh immigrants built temples all over California's agricultural valleys where the families of Jesus Singh or Alejandro Singh worshiped and married. Finding loopholes in the ruling system of racial division and classification, those who picked the fruit and vegetables served on dinner tables all over the country brought new life to the old dream of a mestizo America.

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